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Contingent work and its contradictions : towards a moral economy framework

Bolton, Sharon and Houlihan, Maeve and Laaser, Knut (2012) Contingent work and its contradictions : towards a moral economy framework. Journal of Business Ethics. ISSN 0167-4544

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Abstract

This paper proposes the lens of moral economy as a useful ethical framework through which to assess HRM practice with a particular focus on the strategic use of contingent work (‘non-standard’ employment practices, including temporary, agency or subcontracted/outsourced work, and ‘independent contracting’). While contingent work practices have a variety of impetuses we focus here on its use as an instrumental tool in the pursuit of competitiveness and flexibility. A review of the contingent work literature conveys mixed messages about its outcomes and consequences for individuals, and more opaquely, for organisations: on the one hand transferring risks yet, on the other, creating opportunities. A moral economy lens views employment as a relationship rooted in a web of social dependencies, and considers that ‘thick’ relations produce valuable ethical surpluses that represent mutuality and human flourishing. Applying such an approach to the analysis of contingent work enables a fresh interpretation of contradictory individual and collective outcomes observed in the research literature. We suggest that evaluations informed by moral economy offer a more holistic appraisal of HRM practices such as contingent work, where both economic and social opportunities and costs can be more fully seen. In this way we not only highlight the ethical inadequacies of neglecting the human in HRM, but also the conceptual pitfalls of analytically separating the economic from the social.